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Confusion over St. Petersburg sidewalk seating after DeSantis order

After saying expanded sidewalk seating would end following the governor’s order, city officials walk it back one day later.
Sidewalk seating rules in St. Petersburg that were relaxed last year in response to the pandemic to allow businesses to seat more patrons safely are in jeopardy. City officials are trying to codify the changes to make the rules more permanent.
Sidewalk seating rules in St. Petersburg that were relaxed last year in response to the pandemic to allow businesses to seat more patrons safely are in jeopardy. City officials are trying to codify the changes to make the rules more permanent. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published May 6
Updated May 6

ST. PETERSBURG — City government, still trying to contend with the implications of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order this week suspending local coronavirus emergency restrictions, walked back guidance it offered to businesses about the outdoor seating it’s permitted on street parking spots outside some restaurants and bars.

The city on Wednesday sent notices to businesses that the parking spot seating — allowed under Mayor Rick Kriseman’s state of emergency order from last year to help businesses make up for indoor dining capacity restrictions — was ending.

According to that notice, sent by Planning and Development Services Director Elizabeth Abernethy, restaurants and bars with expanded outdoor seating were going to have remove their tables and chairs by Sunday, with the city removing the temporary barriers that have guarded the tables sometime thereafter. The alert said the decision was “based on the governor’s action.”

Related: What we know about DeSantis’ executive order suspending local COVID-19 restrictions

But on Thursday afternoon, Abernethy sent out another letter with the subject “Good news: Revised Update” on the outdoor seating. The announcement said the program was extended by one week while the city “explore(s) any and all legal options available to allow us to extend it further.”

She still advised businesses to “begin to consider a plan (of) termination of the program in the event we are unable to come up with a legally permissible temporary solution.”

Related: With government mask orders gone, Tampa Bay businesses decide whether to keep theirs

The administration’s reversal is the result of how the city interpreted DeSantis’ order. As recently as Thursday morning, Kriseman told reporters gathered in his office that the governor’s order ended the city’s state of emergency. By Thursday afternoon, his interpretation changed: Kriseman left the city’s state of emergency in place, forestalling the outdoor seating crunch.

“We’re just trying to figure out how to keep it open, based on the popularity of it,” said the city’s policy chief, Kevin King.

Still, the weeklong extension is a stopgap. The pandemic seating rules aren’t written in regular city code and would end when the city’s state of emergency ultimately expires. At Thursday’s City Council meeting, members asked what could be done to minimize further whiplash for businesses.

City officials said they were trying to come up with a more permanent solution. They could codify the rules, but that would require several public hearings, as they relate to land development regulations.

“Nothing is off the table for us.” city attorney Jackie Kovilaritch said. “You have the collective brain trust of the city. ... We’re looking at every possible angle.”

Council members were also briefed on new protocols inside City Hall. Since the body returned to its chambers last fall, rules have been in place to limit the number of people who can be in the room at a time. And those in the room have had to wear masks.

Related: Pinellas rescinds mask mandate after DeSantis’ executive order

Now that the governor eliminated those restrictions, capacity limits inside chambers will return to normal levels and those inside will not be forced to wear masks. But Dr. Israel Wojnowich, a St. Petersburg physician on Kriseman’s Restart St. Pete advisory council, said he’d still wear a mask to work if he were a council member. The plexiglass dividers that separate Council members will remain in place.

Despite DeSantis lifting restrictions, council members and Kriseman stressed to the public that safety measures like mask wearing and distancing — while not enforceable — are still critical to stopping the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

The mayor on Thursday morning spoke to reporters from his office, pressing the importance of getting vaccinated and staying vigilant, while lambasting the governor’s order as “foolish and shortsighted and legally tenuous.”

The mayor said 44 percent of eligible residents in Pinellas County are vaccinated, still far lower than the 70 percent or higher figure experts have said it will take to achieve herd immunity.

The council on Thursday also approved a series of actions that collectively dedicated nearly $2.6 million to a “resilience and retention economic package” designed to help small businesses. Nearly half is reallocated funds that came from the city’s neighborhood commercial revitalization, storefront conservation and Grow Smarter initiatives. The other half comes from unspent dollars from the Fighting Chance Fund, which last year gave grants to local small businesses and their employees, plus some CARES Act funding from the county.

The money will be dispersed through five grants:

  • Small business retention and restoration microgrants will be offered to all city small businesses for technology and building systems upgrades and COVID-19 mitigation expenses, like for personal protective equipment.
  • Arts and culture business and performance grants will be offered to performers, businesses and venues.
  • Cultural venue support grants will go toward cultural hubs like the city’s museums.
  • Business support organization grants will be offered to nonprofits that have provided small business support, outreach or mentoring during the pandemic.
  • Nonprofit event support organizations grants will provide assistance to “long-standing events that are associated with St. Petersburg, to ensure continuity and to assist small businesses that utilize these events to market and sell.”

Interested businesses can contact the city at stpetegreenhouse.com/incentives/.